Was heißt BLOB? – Laurence A. Rickels
In conversation with Ryan Mitchell, Alexander Nowak says of the enigmatic force he unleashed in his Web series titled BLOB: “absorbing everything around you and then throwing it up. Like the blob in the original horror film. It’s a sticky mixture which scarfs up everything that is in its way and gets bigger and bigger till it will swallow the whole Internet and barf it out again.” Collaged together in each episode are recurring strands of narration, in which violence is now fantasized, now explored for a significance lying both in the future of wish fulfillment and traumatically encysted in the past.
In Germany. A Science Fiction (2014), I charted a genealogy suspended between the repression and return of a certain highpoint of science fiction: Fritz Lang’s double feature, Metropolis (1927) and Frau im Mond (1929). However, the films were not carried forward, indeed became untenable rehearsals or repetitions, once the Third Reich traded in the points of fiction for realization. From televisual live transmission (including video telephony) to Gleichschaltung, the future world in Metropolis became agenda. But outside the murk of doubling and mass psychology, there was the clear text of the invention and take-off of the first rockets. After the Nazis took charge, Frau im Mond was shown with the pan of the rocket designs removed: that’s how close the authorities felt the fiction cut to the weapons in fact being produced.
War over, and the traumatic recent past of a Nazi future now under repression, the science-fiction genre had to start over as a cold-war exclusive made in America. Blade Runner, the first adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, which took the look of Metropolis into the future world it projected in 1982, belonged to the avant garde of the return of German science fiction. While American culture benefited from this return along the sliding scale of innovation between B and A, newness in the production and reception of mass culture was long gone in Germany. In the settings of globalization (including animism, on which Joseph Beuys set his interventions) exceptions to the German destiny could still be tried out. When Beuys declared before his German audiences that everyone was an artist this was his paradoxical intervention in a sorry state. In an episode of BLOB that was not completed when I wrote this essay, the “mayor of art” declares while scaling one of the ugliest sculptures in history (oddly resembling the flash-frozen blob in the movies) that Beuys’s famous elevation of Jedermann to artist spelled a subsequent ending of art. Sometimes what we dread coming our way, heading for future realization, already happened long time ago.
Although decades earlier Dick had augured the return of German science fiction, and what it signified, the post-war integration of Germany, the Metropolis look on the screen was specific to Ridley Scott’s film, which on its own mixed into the return of the repressed future the “Japanese” combo of techno modernity and feudalism, compatible, in turn, with the fantasy genre that was in the ascendant (after Blade Runner, Legend, in which evil could be turned around through the rescue of a unicorn, was Scott’s next film). Blade Runner became the acknowledged precursor of a new science-fiction subgenre: cyberpunk.
When Minority Report (2002) was in fact marketed as “cyberpunk,” the ongoing cinematic adaptation of Dick’s science fiction caught up with the mix of projection that had been a by-product of Scott’s film. “Japan” didn’t belong to the foreground of the representation of the future in Steven Spielberg’s film version of Dick’s story. But in the years following the blockbuster’s release, a cursory clicking through the Internet shows that the world press highlighted developments in Japanese law enforcement and advertising as realizations of what was forecast in Minority Report.
Although German culture was a major contributor to the eighteenth-century invention of the adolescent (just consider The Sorrows of Young Werther), the Nazis, by elevating youth to cultural superego, a distinction in extinction, lost the crazy careful prematurity and imperfection – the “genius” – of teen insight. That Dick’s androids more than resemble teenagers illustrates the restart of adolescent or group psychology in its new Heimat, California. Delivered by the atom bomb of military preparations for future total wars and granted through effective contraception experimental license in domestic affairs, adolescence became the new or renewed mass cultural medium for the “containing” sex and violence that was its content. Bordering on psychopathy, even passing through it but only to leave it behind, adolescence functions as inoculum. The opening era of daydreaming, adolescence is the phase we grow out of (like the past or posting of “dear diary” journal-ism) into the “autonomy” of publication; it is the conduit for rescuing the inventiveness of omnipotence from the close quarters of cohabitation (for a time equal to the android’s life span in Dick’s novel) with psychopathy. D. W. Winnicott’s understanding of the antisocial tendency in its relationship to psychopathy and adolescence, on which I rely here, doesn’t have to be true. But by conditions analogous to those operative in Dick’s future postwar worlds, Winnicott’s theorization describes a world that is explicitly post-World-War-Two.
Winnicott’s paradoxical interpretation of delinquent behavior as signalling hope delivered psychopathy from the dead end of an ongoing failure of interpretation. The introduction of the “borderline” into the diagnosis of psychosis also follows out the transformation of an outer-limit concept into a frontier zone. Many works of science fiction can be seen to allegorize this zone in terms of conquest of outer space which pioneers must colonize for the survival of the species. Alexander Nowak enters this zone to confront the forfeiture of innovation in the ultimate global setting, the Web. At the start of BLOB 1 we can make out in the background of the “Archetour,” in which an expert extolls the highpoints of a hideously botched modern building, a zombie gradually staggering forward. Yes, we know and look forward to what that means.
Among the partially digested figures of Nowak’s metabolic project there is a Jersey City weatherman who forecasts catastrophe on cam. “Off camera” we know where he lives: in what looks like a basement storehouse of collectable musical instruments. He hasn’t stepped outside in thirteen years. Dark and Matter, a dynamic duo of alien adolescents or androids, keep returning in their space cruiser to observe human life and discuss fantastic plans for destroying the meat “vehicles” on earth and making “ugly body goulash.” What counts as the organizing episode of the BLOB series features a “hypersea-fisherman” traveling with his hamster in a spaceship searching for who or what destroyed their home planet. What is this hypersea that overlaps with outer space or the Web? Because of the proximity to “hypertext” one can find “hypersea” online as borrowed label for certain digital developments. However, the term originally belonged to a supplementary evolutionary theory that focused on the fungal and parasitic milieu of the life that ascended from the sea to become land based. The ease of metabolizing nutrients under water had to find an alternative on land. Then there’s the related problem of excretion: how does the excrement of death sustain life (the Nietzschean question)? The hypersea means that life doesn’t decompose without at the same time diversifying within its connective network. One of the earliest and largest results of this life process was coal and its role in the history of fuel supplies. The theory of the hypersea adds an ecosystem adjustment to our understanding of natural resources. That cybernetics translated all vital flows into transmission of information is a good reason to look upon the hypersea as the analogy to use for plotting the digital relation, the successful successor to psychic reality on a scale of evolution that is technology based.
Nowak is an artist who makes films. He decided, however, to start a Web series because of the speed or ease with which thoughts can pass into its production. With the lighter touch of the screen he can also try out ideas and relations that remain outside his more serious work. In the conversation with Mitchell, he explains the proximity to wish fantasying: “BLOB has no script, more like notes and thoughts. BLOB is fast thinking, fast deciding, fast realizing, fast acting, fast finishing.” In relation to painting we refer to sketches as analogous to quickly jotted down thoughts. In film, especially in horror films, special effects function by the finitude of their timeliness as drafts or sketches of thoughts. On stage a sketch is a dramatic performance (often associated with vaudeville) that is as short as the span of a joke reaching the punchline. It’s also a derogation meaning “dishonest” or “illicit.” The Web blotter of thinking and wishing, which can indeed count as “sketchy,” is a good translation of “camp” for the era of the digital relation.
In BLOB’s exploration of the Web, the self-conscious references to the recent past, buoys used in navigating the hypersea, are insignia of sketchiness. BLOB remains attached, for example, to the staged self-reflexivity that anticipated digital developments in the early 1990s. The quality of making public what should remain private — trash-conversation among friends seated in front of a screen — was the address rehearsal for the sensibility of the sketchy. Dark and Matter in the alien juvenile delinquency episodes continue in a bona fide matching German idiom the bantering exchange between Beavis and Butt-Head in the 1990s.
A logo figure that appears in BLOB 5, the smurf named Andy (a moniker that in Dick’s test novel is the nickname for “android”) addresses or animates the audience and thus plays alienated host to alienated B&B viewers/consumers. The eclecticism of topics and episodes is correlated with that of the technical production of the series. Although contemporary smartphones and professional digital film cameras were also used in making the footage, old mobile phones from the early years of the new millennium contribute as well, while all the episodes of the hypersea fisherman were recorded with a consumer video camera (H18) from the early 1990s. We are in the recycling has-been of the digital relation, comparable perhaps to the hypersea’s deposit of fossil fuels.
For his Web series, Nowak borrowed the title from a 1958 American B-movie, The Blob, a mix of horror and science fiction. The replay of positions from my earlier work given above, which was largely the history taken down from the “German” patient, also introduces a film reference that gives the history of the other patient.
Like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead ten years later, The Blob was an independent production filmed in Pennsylvania that proved to be a blockbuster. To sum up quickly its exemplary value: the transitional objective of containing the menace of psychopathic violence through its passing likeness to adolescent acting out falls short of the emergency military solution at the film’s conclusion, its displacement and confinement to the north pole. But the teen protagonist concludes that all’s well as long as the arctic cold lasts. Only the cold war can contain the psycho violence, the blob rebounding from the recent past. Taken together as a staggered series, however, like Romero’s first three living-dead films, the original The Blob together with its 1972 and 1987 sequels can be seen to comprise a trilogy, in which topical application of allegory illuminates the changes going into group psychology decade by decade.
The 1972 sequel, Beware! The Blob (aka Son of Blob, Son of the Blob, and The Blob Returns), opens in the suburban home of Chester, an African-American who’s recently back from his gig in the North Pole working on an oil rig. They struck upon some unidentified substance, a sample of which was entrusted to him to take back to California for lab testing. But why is there a tent set up in the living room? Why is he compelled to re-enact the site up north? A post-traumatic reaction to time spent in non-U.S. territory tells the other story of the Vietnam War. Chester placed the sample for the time being in the freezer. But while she tolerates his souvenirs in the living room, his wife won’t have the ectoplasm of his traumatic tour of duty in her work space. She removes the sample from the freezer and places it on the counter. That’s right, it’s a piece of the 1958 blob gradually thawing out.
The 1987 sequel was directed by a one-time contributor to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The horror fare in the local theater is no longer “spook” movies, as in 1958, but slasher films, to which the pre-teens are in thrall against their parental guidance. But the odd couple of teens in the foreground of this version exchange banter that’s a slasher-movie giveaway. For example: “I feel like fucking Hansel and Gretel here.” And then the boy mentions the missing breadcrumbs. Usually this fateful line is followed by the couple commenting that it’s not a good sign that the third person, who just appeared, is wearing a mask. This portion is spoken in the slasher film within the science-fiction movie: “It’s not hockey season,” the guy on screen says to his date about the masked man bearing a chainsaw. “Isn’t it late to be cutting the hedges?”
In 1987 the plot doesn’t involve outer space but only looks like that for a time. It’s a bio-weapons experiment that went awry in a satellite. When the crashed container cracks open, what spills out, something like the liquid essence of zombieism, starts consuming the locals on contact.
From the 1972 to the 1987 sequel we can follow the bouncing blob like a chip off the old “black.” The mad scientist heading the squad clad in white insulating outfits that look like updates of KKK attire is African-American. In Night of the Living Dead, the only survivor, who then ends up collateral damage in the mopping up of the epidemic attributed to the recoil from Venus of an experimental probe, was the African-American Ben, a natural-born leader. This unmotivated conclusion, which was soon a wrap with the assassination of Martin Luther King, prompted Romero to draw the first film through the loop of political allegory, which the two sequels in the trilogy openly addressed. In 1987, according to The Blob, integration spells reversal: why shouldn’t the corrupt and powerful now be black, too? But reversal is also peristaltic, an unending blob-like reversal of reversal.
That the movie ends on the prospect of another apocalyptic outbreak fits a tendency in splatter films to evaluate criteria for survival. In Romero’s second and third living-dead movies, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), the outcome of what was identified on the TV news in Night of the Living Dead as “epidemic of mass murder” is an occasion for terroristic cleansing of the social body. All those outdated by the apocalyptic transformation of the environment, any person stuck on racist, sexist, even proprietary tendencies, qualifies for exitus. In 1987 the blob carries forward this calculation of progress through elimination. When a member of the scientific team proclaims that the unforeseen mutation that the biological weapon underwent in space means the cold war is over, another member corrects him: most of the world as we know it will be gone, too. Pre-blob, the late 1980s town exemplified what Freud forecast as the impoverishment of groups: Christian Mass psychology of mutual identification in the absence of object relations in love or mourning. At the end, there is a coupling of self and other, the cheerleader and the bad/cool boy, which is the innovation that supplies the blob catastrophe’s silver lining.
The term “blob” that was used to designate a new monster in 1958 was a somewhat random choice; in the shooting-script it was “the mass” and finally, by metonymy, absence, and association, it replaced “the glob” originally chosen for the title when that word was discovered to be already in use. The Jersey City forecast in BLOB 2 calls for a Biblical infestation of locusts and crickets. The weatherman is inspired to add: “Little Jiminy is on his way.” By thus recalling the superego figure from the Disney animation film Pinocchio (1940), we cannot but flash on the wondrous reunion of the puppet (accompanied by the cricket) with his father and extended family of cat and gold fish inside a great whale.
Even a throwaway word has an etymology: blob is linked to blubber, which was historically harvested in whales and, in a word, counted as the ellipsis for whale blubber. American literary A-culture originated in an industry as vast as it was unsung prior to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It should really count as the “Great Japanese Novel.”
Japan is party to the history of Nowak’s BLOB series. The alien kids calling for “ketchup time” show the influence of the Japanese contributions to B-culture, anime and manga, which, back to my genealogy of postwar innovation, attest to the postwar “catchup time” in which Japan, unlike Germany, was immediately and successfully engaged.
Each BLOB episode in the making was awash in the social media of friendship, the linking and liking navigating the feed. Each completed BLOB episode remains on the Hypersea of the Web but closed off like a ship or a defeated whale. Moby-Dick drops archival moorings to float its boat in a sea of fantasying: “for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming still.” The Hypersea fisherman must plumb these depths that fit the Meta-byrinth (BLOB 3) packed with the primal repressions of his forbears. In BLOB 4 a vast supply of beautiful gelatine squares of space food is the treasure the hero brings back from this quest and will impart to the community, which would be the audience. Like most “almost” food, this fast food can only be overeaten, which means it is transformed by peristaltic reversal into another supply of treasure: jingling jelly ghosts who lead Nowak and us to the next episode.
As Melville quipped in a letter, the bulk rate of whaling carries blubber, from which oil is readily extracted, while he sought to derive poetry from it, a more precarious endeavor. The significance of the whale, which begins with its corpse, overflows by its excess, very much like a blob, the bookish comparisons that promote the metaphysical comforts of literary self-reflexivity. The narrator meticulously catalogues item by item all the component parts of the whale corpse, which are preserved, carved, cut out, or peeled off already on board the ship to use or bring home as trophies, souvenirs, or luxury items. Even the skin of the animal, “resembling the thinnest shreds of isinglass, only it is almost as flexible and soft as satin” (1119), slips over the relay of books, to which the protagonist-narrator of his memories as sole survivor will add Moby Dick. “I have such dried bits, which I use for marks in my whale-books. It is transparent … and being laid upon the printed page, I have sometimes pleased myself with fancying it exerted a magnifying influence. At any rate, it is pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles, as you may say” (ibid.).
The ships of the whaling industry explore, like space ships brought down to earth, final frontiers. The whale-ship is extolled as “pioneer in ferreting out the remotest and least known parts of the earth. She has explored seas and archipelagos which had no chart” (909). One contribution by whale-ships to the charting of the unknown occurred in 1819 whereupon “the great Japanese whaling ground first became generally known” (1267). The mid-nineteenth-century novel announces an opening up of Japan’s harbors coming soon: “If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold” (911). After penetrating “the heart of the Japanese cruising ground” in pursuit of Moby Dick (1317), Captain Ahab must withstand a typhoon, which is introduced in the terms of a weather forecast: “It will sometimes burst from out that cloudless sky, like an exploding bomb upon a dazed and sleepy town” (1329).
P. K. Dick first began exploring the bicoastal dialectic between California and Germany through its underworld, the alternate history of The Man in the High Castle (1962), in which the outcome of World War Two was reversed. What occupies the foreground, however, is Japan’s colonization of the west coast. That the Japanese dead are being addressed is made clear enough by the Nazi plans to obliterate them (again) with more of the same bombs. The atom bomb was Germany’s bomb; it was developed by a team of scientists engaged in a contest with Nazi science, which was known to specialize in weapons as miraculous as the hoped-for final victory. The Japanese watched Godzilla (1954), an innovative mix of the horror and science fiction B-genres, arise out of the bombings. The postwar Japanese felt so at home in American B-culture that they began to redecorate.
The war against terrorism belongs to the symptom picture of the “rogue” decision to drop the bomb on Japan. In BLOB 5, when the melancholic in Jersey City forecasts a local hydrogen bombing like a wish come true we are reminded that “weatherman” was the name for the member of one of many American terrorist groups organized around ending the Vietnam War by breaching domestic denial and bringing the psychopathic violence home.
To date found footage has been used twice in the BLOB series. There’s the flash-forward vision in Terminator 2 (1991), which convinces Sarah that the world will end if she doesn’t become a terrorist. There is also a You-Tube post, the interview of a bystander – innocent, ironic, or psycho – at an anti-Trump demonstration. It starts out with his affirmation that Trump will lift up Atlantis from the watery deep. It is part of BLOB 4 and follows the weatherman’s harpsichord performance, which closes upon a small superimposed portrait of Bach. We know that in the weatherman’s abode a poster announces that “Music and weather is my Life” (BLOB 2). Freud argued that the death drive is the silence in the background of the melody of the drives. Bach’s portrait on the weatherman’s flask changes into the face of the guy being interviewed at the protest rally. Since topical application marks the onset of allegory we come full loop with his deranged or inspired insistence that “Trump is going to complete the system of German idealism.” The only way that would work is by dropping the bomb where it belongs.
- In Foundations.
- The theory developed by a couple of scientists began a longer process of testing and formulation on the campus of UC Santa Barbara.
- I make an example of the film in Germany. A Science Fiction (Fort Wayne: Anti-Oedipus Press, 2014): 38-40.
- Sigmund Freud, Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse, Gesammelte Werke, ed. Anna Freud, vol. 13 (London: Imago Publishing Co. Ltd., 1940): 150-51.
- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, The Whale, New York: Library Classics of the United States, 1983): 1308. Subsequent page references are to this edition and are given in the text.
- Melville to Richard Henry Dana, Jr., May 1, 1850.